Volume 14, 
June, 2016


VOC Going Nowhere? Tell a Story
Applying a lesson from the book “Switch” to product definition


Sheila Mello

At the recent FEI: Front End of Innovation 2016 conference I heard Dan Heath speak on a topic he has spent a lot of time educating people about: making change that sticks.

He and his brother, Chip, have written three books about change-making, among them Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. (You can read the first chapters of all three books on their web site.) A couple of things stood out for me from the stories Dan told as part of his presentation:

To make change, you must go beyond the rational to the emotional. Switch refers to an analogy developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, comparing our emotional side to an elephant and our rational side to a rider sitting atop the elephant. “Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched,” Heath says in Switch. That’s because understanding and appealing to the emotions—the elephant—is crucial to making a change (or getting buy-in, or persuading management to support your plan).

To make change, you have to tolerate failure. Think of a child learning to walk. If the parents said, “You can’t walk. Don’t even try—you’re going to fall down!” the child would never attempt to walk. She would never take the many tumbles and spills that are a required part of learning to walk. Most of us acknowledge that risk-tolerance is a requirement for innovation, but I see too few companies willing to fall on their faces in pursuit of something new.

Both of these ideas have implications for product definition and development. In particular, if you want to change the way your company gathers voice of the customer (VOC) data, you often encounter resistance—reluctance to change—among peers and managers. In the tone of anxious parents, they might protest, “We can’t do that! We’re not experts on talking to customers, so we shouldn’t even try.”

If this sounds familiar, here’s how Heath’s ideas could help you make change that sticks when it comes to your organization’s approach to VOC.

Rational knowledge alone can’t spur change.

I have seen this play out at more organizations than I can count. PowerPoint presentations, budgets, complex analyses, reams and reams of data—none of these speak loudly enough get people over the enormous psychological hurdle of changing the way they do something or convince them to do something completely new.

To get buy-in on the need for a new product or a new way of approaching your customers, do more than just distill the facts and figures. Create the narrative that will allow your colleagues to see, hear, feel, and maybe even smell the customer’s frustration.

Working with BD Medical on an MDPD (Market-Driven Product Definition) project, we heard some extremely moving stories from physicians. “You can’t give 4 shots in 20 minutes… you just can’t. But this 4-month-old comes in and they need 4 immunizations… the whole process of giving them information and seeing if they have questions… you’re going ‘oh my god.’” We shared these stories with a cross-functional team that included product development, marketing, quality control, manufacturing—anyone in an organization whose job touched the product—as part of the process of distilling customer research into actionable requirements. This gave everyone on the team a sense of the customer’s challenges at an emotional level (understanding the elephant, to use the analogy from Heath’s book).

Guess what? These same stories can help convince a reluctant manager to support the kind of in-depth, open-ended inquiry that is such a rich source of ideas for product innovation.

Of course, you need to appeal to the rider as well as the elephant. You need quantitative survey data to demonstrate that a majority of physicians feel overwhelmed when immunizing infants and maybe a Kano survey to determine the relative appeal of certain approaches to solving the problem. But those alone are not going to move the needle.

Share the failure.

Progress, according to Heath, happens in fits and starts. Many companies are accustomed to outsourcing VOC research, the part of the product definition process that yields rich stories and connections with customers that appeal to the emotions. Taking these projects in-house is a big change and can make you feel like an infant on the way to becoming a walking toddler. You might fall on your face. But the only way to improve is to try. And sharing your failures as well as your successes with other parts of the company is a way to encourage change-making in your organization as a whole.

So, if your organization is stuck in old approaches to VOC—where some of your colleagues may be reluctant to change their approach or to spend the money necessary to do a deep dive into customer experience—tell a story. Appeal to the elephant—paint a picture of the frustrations your customers face every day in trying to get their jobs done. Sure, you can put up graphs and charts showing disappointing revenue, but I’ll bet anything the vivid picture of a customer’s struggle will be what eventually moves the team to act to adopt a new approach to VOC. And don’t be afraid of the fits and starts that seem like failure but are actually the hallmark of progress.

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